Projecting Force Ashore: Gaining and Maintaining Operational Access

  • Apr 6, 2012

    Last month, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps released the “Gaining and Maintaining Access” concept (GMAC). GMAC is a comprehensive discussion of the Army-Marine role in cracking future Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) challenges. GMAC—like AirSea Battle (ASB)—is subordinate to the recently released Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC). In military terms, GMAC’s central and supporting ideas are “nested” with those articulated in JOAC. Once ASB is complete, the three concepts (JOAC, ASB, and GMAC) should lay down a conceptual foundation against which the Department of Defense (DOD) can gauge the adequacy of its broad counter-A2/AD capabilities and methods.

    GMAC arrives just in time for a more comprehensive debate about the future of American warfighting. Tied down in Afghanistan, with the difficult legacy of Iraq fresh in their minds, senior DOD leaders are hesitant to contemplate future combat action involving significant numbers of U.S. ground forces. Recent defense guidance reflects that sentiment, favoring a definition of power projection that hinges on precision attack from over the horizon.

    Naturally, this puts the capability for opposed intervention in jeopardy. GMAC thoughtfully and responsibly explores this sensitive territory in the abstract. Despite senior defense assumptions to the contrary, a number of emergent circumstances could call for U.S. intervention over the near, medium, and long term. And, the A2/AD obstacles to forcible ground intervention are as numerous as those for the kind of air and naval operations envisioned in ASB.

    Q1: In practical terms, what does GMAC do?

    A1: Recall that “concepts” represent the U.S. military thinking out loud. They are often preliminary hypotheses about what future military demands might look like and how the joint force might structure and fight to address them effectively. New concepts aren’t automatically noteworthy strategically. However, like JOAC and ASB, GMAC will stir up debate among U.S. strategists and planners about the character of important conflicts and the role of the different service components in them.

    The U.S. Army and Marine Corps describe GMAC as their interim contribution to a future joint solution for opposed “entry operations.” Entry operations are those early actions taken by U.S. forces in foreign contingency missions to defeat A2/AD threats and establish sufficient forces ashore/inland to achieve follow-on military objectives. In general, gaining and maintaining access is not an objective by itself, although in the face of specific threats to freedom of navigation, for example, it might be. In most cases, U.S. forces gain access and maintain it in order to accomplish some broader politico-military objective—e.g., defeating land-based threats, securing strategic resources, reversing aggression, etc.

    Currently, JOAC is the capstone for both ASB and GMAC. ASB focuses on penetrating and defeating a sophisticated adversary’s air, sea, space, and cyberspace anti-access (A2) complex to enable prosecution of comprehensive joint military action in a contested theater. GMAC, on the other hand, focuses on defeating closer-in area denial (AD) challenges, in order to facilitate deployment and employment of follow-on forces and prosecution of more expansive joint ground operations. Specific AD threats include enemy conventional and irregular forces; short-range air defenses; precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery, and mortars; high-density small arms and improvised explosive devices; and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). GMAC also describes how combined-arms Army and Marine formations can—through ground and littoral maneuver—contribute to the broader A2/AD fight. It suggests they do so by conducting sustained operations to defeat, seize, or limit the effectiveness of ground-based A2 threats. These might include adversary special operating forces, proxy sanctuaries, cruise and ballistic missiles, WMDs, and longer-range air and missile defenses.

    Q2: Why is GMAC so important now?

    A2: GMAC and the GMAC-inspired experimentation that follows are indispensable components of the Army–Marine Corps’ postwar reset. Joint capability for forcible intervention has atrophied over the past decade. GMAC is an important first step in recapturing this deteriorating capability. Simultaneous, distributed employment of amphibious, airborne, and/or helicopter-borne air assault forces directly into contact—regardless of how light the resistance—is the most complex and risk-laden military operation there is. It also happens to be a useful instrument in a president’s contingency tool kit, especially in the event of a fast-moving littoral or inland crisis that is either invulnerable to or inappropriate for coercive stand-off responses.

    Over the last 11 years, with the exception of the initial stages of the war in Afghanistan, Army and Marine theater entry occurred under the most ideal conditions. Employing the language of military doctrine, U.S. forces entered both Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, via deliberate reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI). Units arrived in the Middle East with enough time and breathing room to reconfigure for a combat mission that was, in most cases, geographically separated from the initial point of entry. Strategic circumstances now suggest that the United States may have an increasing need to force theater entry under much more challenging conditions, either to achieve a discrete and limited set of objectives on their own or rapidly set conditions for the arrival of more robust follow-on forces—all without the deliberate RSOI enjoyed over the past 10-plus years.

    U.S. ground forces are increasingly drawing back from forward bases and are likely to experience greater limitations on routine access to at-risk theaters. Forced entry or entry under uncertain conditions—undertaken from a “cold start” at strategic distances and in the face of myriad hybrid challenges—are likely to be the norm in the event of armed intervention. Under these circumstances, opposition to U.S. entry will vary in quality and character. But all opponents will present complex obstacles to access, ranging from highly irregular and disorganized forces to organized formations, boasting sophisticated military assets.

    Forcible entry doesn’t imply frontal assault into well-prepared, high-tech defenses either, as some critics suggest. It does imply the capability to land in theater ready to fight at multiple points with sufficient numbers and mobility to out-maneuver and defeat sophisticated defenses. Or, in extremis, directly challenge and defeat less-organized and sophisticated threats to achieve high-priority, time-sensitive objectives.

    Q3: Having demonstrated an ability to strike at adversaries worldwide with a suite of manned and unmanned systems, under what conditions might a president have to order the forcible introduction of ground forces?

    A3: The individual character of contingency events determines the menu of appropriate military responses. For the foreseeable future, forcible entry is most likely to take place under four general sets of circumstances. The first is an urgent need to secure strategic resources, infrastructure, geography, or military capabilities against damage or hostile exploitation. The second is the limited stabilization of an important region or state where various armed groups are actively vying for political control after a failure of central authority. The third is destruction of enemy capabilities, hostile networks, and/or threat bases of support operating from sanctuary. Finally, the fourth is an intervention to protect at-risk populations from systematic abuse by a state or rival group. Given the experience of the last decade, it is likely that all of these operations will occur under significant constraints with respect to the resources committed and the objectives pursued. And, the introduction of U.S. ground forces is likeliest to occur only under circumstances where core interests are at risk and threat actors operate within or in close proximity to civilian populations or in very complex terrain, requiring distributed mass and discrimination.

    Contemporary Syria and Iran might be useful archetypes for visualizing the access challenges likeliest to confront intervening Army and Marine forces. Their use here is descriptive not predictive. Both have littoral access and some strategic depth. Both also have the potential to produce significant hybrid violence. As an example only, operations to secure Syria’s WMD/delivery systems, minimally stabilize key cities, deny use of its territory as destabilizing sanctuary, or protect its most vulnerable populations would require the widely distributed deployment of large numbers of forces. They would enter the theater under hostile or uncertain conditions and could face a thicket of traditional, irregular, and hybrid forces fighting against the intervention and against one another simultaneously. Many of the various threat forces would have access to sophisticated military capabilities and may operate under little or no discernible centralized command and control. Likewise, even a limited intervention against Iran to deny it use of its port facilities for offensive operations, restrict its ability to hector Gulf shipping with cruise missiles, or protect oil infrastructure during a protracted civil conflict would run headlong into a hybrid “mosaic” defense, where opposing forces employ both high- and low-end capabilities in a complex mix of methods. In both instances, threat actors would range from organized enemy military and paramilitary forces to popular nationalist movements, terrorists, insurgents, militia groups, foreign proxies, and rogue elements of the state security services. Both states are instructive, as their foundational characteristics mirror those of a number of potential contingency cases.

    Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.